Legal Remedies for Medical Ghostwriting: Imposing Fraud Liability on Guest Authors of Ghostwritten Articles
PLoS Medicine, Vol. 8, No. 8, pp. 1-5, August 2011
5 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2011 Last revised: 1 Nov 2017
Date Written: July 23, 2011
Ghostwriting and guest authorship of medical journal articles raise serious ethical and legal concerns, bearing on the integrity of medical research and evidence used in legal disputes. Ghostwriting involves undisclosed authorship, usually by medical communications agencies or a pharmaceutical sponsor of the published research; guest authorship involves taking authorial credit for the published work without making a substantial contribution to it. Commentators have objected to these practices because of concerns involving bias in ghostwritten clinical trial reports and review articles. We also note the effects of ghostwritten articles on questions involving the legal admissibility of scientific evidence. Efforts to curb ghostwriting practices, undertaken by medical journals, academic institutions, and professional disciplinary bodies, have thus far had little success and show little promise. These organizations have had difficulty adopting and enforcing effective sanctions, for specific reasons relating to the interests and competencies of each kind of organization.
Because of those shortcomings, a useful deterrent in curbing the practice may be achieved through the imposition of legal liability on the ‘guest authors’ who lend their names to ghostwritten articles. We explore the doctrinal grounds on which such articles might be characterized as fraudulent. A guest author’s claim for credit of an article written by someone else constitutes legal fraud, and may give rise to claims that could be pursued in a class action based on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The same fraud could support claims of “fraud on the court” against a pharmaceutical company that has used ghostwritten articles in litigation. This doctrine has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court to impose sanctions on the authors and corporate sponsors of a ghostwritten article. We discuss the potential penalties associated with each of these varieties of fraud.
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